All the queens men, p.5
All the Queen's Men, page 5
Preliminary chemical analysis indicated plastique. They had not, however, found any evidence of a detonator. Even in such a catastrophic explosion, microscopic and chemical evidence would have remained; if something existed, then it left its print.
“To have done this much damage, the bomb had to have been sizeable; the machines in Atlanta should have detected it.” Frank was deeply worried; all luggage for the flight had been inspected, either by machines or humans. If, as John thought, the device was undetectable by their current technology, then they had a big problem on their hands.
Every piece of luggage, both checked and canyons, would have to be hand searched, but airlines weren’t the only ones vulnerable. The possible applications of such a device were staggering. It could be used in mail bombs, to destroy federal buildings—any public building, actually—disrupt transportation and communication. No one in America paid much attention to the security of bridges, either, but let a few of them come down and traffic would grind to a standstill.
The explosive could have been disguised as something else and slipped through the machines in Atlanta. The system failed occasionally; nothing was foolproof. There should still, however, have been evidence of the detonator. They should have found a radio, or a mercury switch, or a simple timer—anything by which the explosion could be triggered. The detonator was actually how most bombs were spotted, because they were more easily detected when scanned.
John rubbed his lower lip and tossed the report onto Frank’s desk. He had been most interested in the chemical analysis. The explosive found had some components in common with plastique, but there were some anomalies. “I’m thinking R.D.X.” R.D.X. was cyclonite, or composition C-l. By itself it was too sensitive to handle, so it was usually mixed with a plasticiser, which would give it some of the same chemical elements as plastique. R.D.X. could be molded into any shape including shoelaces.
Frank looked up. “How? You know how luggage and packages are thrown around; an unstable explosive would have detonated on the ground.”
“But what if it wasn’t originally unstable? What if the compound deteriorates, and sets off a chemical reaction that causes it to explode? If you know the rate of deterioration, the explosion could easily be timed.”
“Something that starts out as stable as plastique, but deteriorates and becomes its own detonator? Son of a bitch.” Frank closed his eyes.
“There’s always the chance some lone sociopath in a lab somewhere cooked this up, but what I’m hearing is that it came out of a top-secret lab in Europe.”
“I’m sure they would be standing in line to buy, but I haven’t picked up any hints that they bankrolled the development.”
“Take your pick; we aren’t short on candidates.” Terrorist groups proliferated all over the world. There were at least twenty-five hundred known organizations; some came and went, others had thousands of members and had been around for decades.
“And they’ll all have this new stuff.”
“Only if they have the money to buy it.” The terrorist organizations might cooperate with one another, but it wasn’t one big happy brotherhood. A new explosive would be a big moneymaker, closely controlled for as long as possible so there would be only one producer of it. Eventually, as happened to all new technology, everyone would have it; by then the means of detecting it would also have been developed. It was like a chess game, with moves and countermoves.
“If it’s in Europe, and big money is behind it, then Louis Ronsard is our man,” John said.
That in itself was a large problem. Ronsard was a shadowy Frenchman who gave his allegiance to no one group; he was the conduit, however, for many, and he had made an enormous fortune providing what was needed. He probably wasn’t behind the development of the explosive, but he would be the logical person to approach as a middle man, one to handle payments and shipments—for a fee, of course.
Ronsard could be picked up, or eliminated; he wasn’t in hiding. But his security was extremely tight, making a capture far more difficult than an elimination. Even if he were captured, John doubted he would give up any useful information. Sophisticated interrogation techniques could be countered by intensive training and mind control. Added to the problem of Ronsard was that he had powerful friends in the French government. He had been left alone, for all of the above reasons, but also because he was neither the source nor the user of all the nasty things he provided. He was the conduit, the controller, the valve. Eliminate him and another conduit would take his place.
Finding the source was the key, but John also had to discover to whom other shipments had already been delivered. To do that, he had to get to Ronsard.
John Medina never stayed in the same place twice when he came to D.C. He had no home, literally. A home base gave anyone looking for him a starting point, and the thing about homes was that eventually, if you had one, you went there. So he lived in hotels and motels, condos, the occasional rented house—or a hut, a tent, a cave, a hole in the ground, whatever was available.
A condo was his preferred living quarters. They were more private than hotels, and, unlike a motel, had more than one exit. He didn’t like sleeping in a place where he could be cornered.
The hotel he chose this time had wrought-iron balconies outside each room, which was what had made him decide in the hotel’s favor. He had checked in earlier, checked for bugs, studied the security, then gone to meet Frank Vinay. Now, when he walked through the lobby to the elevators, no one who saw him would recognize him as the man who had checked in.
Disguise wasn’t difficult. When he checked in he had been wearing glasses, had gray hair spray on his hair, cotton in his cheeks to fill out his face, and he had walked with a definite limp. He had also used a nasal Rochester, New York accent. His clothing had been the kind bought at a discount department store. There was no sign of that man now; he had removed the glasses and washed his hair, exchanged the gray polyester slacks for jeans, the plaid shirt for a white oxford, and the green windbreaker for a black jacket so exquisitely tailored it disguised the bulk of the weapon he wore and still looked fashionable.
He had hung the DO NOT DISTURB sign on his door to keep hotel employees out. Most people would be surprised to find out how often during the day, while they were gone, the hotel staff was in and out of their rooms. Housekeeping, maintenance, management—they all had a master key and could get into any room. Plus there were professional thieves who hung around hotels and noticed the businesspeople—when they left, how long they were gone, etc. A good thief could always get into a locked room, so getting into a room was nothing more than a matter of picking out the target, hanging near the desk to find out how long someone was staying, then discreetly following to see which room the person entered. Next morning, call the room to see if anyone answers. Then go on up, and, to be on the safe side, knock on the door. If there’s still no response, go in.
A DO NOT DISTURB sign at least gives the impression someone was in the room. He had also dialed a certain untraceable number and left the phone off the hook, so if anyone called, he—or she; thieves were not gender specific—would get a busy signal.
Hanging on the inside door handle was a small battery-operated alarm. If anyone ignored the sign and opened the door anyway, an ear-piercing siren sounded, which was certain to attract attention. John turned off the alarm by pressing a button on the small remote he carried in his pocket. The alarm was just a gadget, but it amused him and would startle the hell out of anyone trying to get in. He wouldn’t have bothered with it if he hadn’t left his computer in the room.
The room was as he had left it. He scanned for bugs anyway, as a matter of routine, and thought of Niema’s undetectable device. Technology was a leapfrog affair; something new was developed and for a while that side—whatever side it was—had the advantage. Then a countermeasure was developed and the other side had the advantage. Niem
He didn’t have to hide his identity with Frank Vinay, of course, or with Jess McPherson, an old friend of his father’s. It was a relief to be able to drop his guard, those rare times when he was with one of them, and just be himself.
Sitting at the desk, he disconnected the call, then booted up the laptop and hooked it to the phone line. A few typed commands had him inside one of the CIA’s data banks. He was one of the few people left in the world who still used the MS-DOS operating system, but when he was working he vastly preferred it over any system that required a mouse. A mouse was great for Net surfing or playing games, but he’d found that, when he was working, a mouse slowed him down. He could type in the DOS commands much faster than he could take his hand off the keyboard, guide the mouse, click, and go back to the keyboard. In his world, seconds shaved off operating time could mean the difference between whether he got the information he needed and got out safely, or if he was caught.
There was a wealth of personal information on Louis Ronsard—his parents, where he lived growing up, his school records, his friends, his extracurricular activities. Louis hadn’t been a deprived child; his father had been a wealthy industrialist, his mother a well-born beauty who had doted on her children—Louis, the oldest, and Mariette, three years younger.
Louis was attending the Sorbonne when his mother died of ovarian cancer. His father was killed five years later in an accident on the Autobahn while on a business trip to Germany. Louis had taken over the reins of the family business, and, for reasons unknown, gone renegade. From that time to the present there was precious little personal information to be had about him, though he was far from a recluse.
Ronsard owned a heavily guarded estate in the south of France. He employed a small private army to ensure his security; to be hired, one had to meet stringent standards. The Company had planted one of their own, to no avail; the agent hadn’t been able to discover anything useful, because his own activities were so regulated. He was still in place, though; John made a note of the agent’s name and cover.
There was a recent photo; Ronsard was a striking man, with slightly exotic features and olive skin. He wore his dark hair long, usually secured at the nape, but for social occasions he left it loose. In this photograph he was emerging from some banquet, clad in a tuxedo, with a glowing blonde on his arm. She was smiling up at him with adoration in her eyes. She was Sophie Gerrard, briefly Ronsard’s lover, but no longer in contact with him.
There was a long list of Ronsard’s lovers. Women found him very attractive. His liaisons never lasted long, but he was evidently considerate and affectionate before his roving eye landed on some other lady.
There was a diagram of the mansions’ grounds, but nothing of the house itself. Ronsard entertained occasionally, but the affairs were very exclusive, and the CIA hadn’t yet been able to get anyone inside as either a guest or domestic help. True, Ronsard hadn’t been at the top of their to-do list, so little effort had been expended on doing so.
That was going to change, however. Ronsard had just moved to the top of the list.
John maneuvered his way through a few more files, checking on Ronsard’s known finances, who had designed and installed the mansion’s security system, if there were any existing wiring plans. He found little information; Ronsard had either wiped his records, or they had never existed in the first place.
When he finished, it was two A.M. He stretched, suddenly aware of the kinks in his shoulders. He had another meeting with Frank the coming night, and maybe they would have more information on the crash. Until then, he could relax.
He showered and fell into bed. He had the warrior’s knack of quickly and easily falling asleep, but tonight he found himself staring at the ceiling where the tiny red light on the smoke alarm blinked on and off. He didn’t have to wonder about his sleeplessness; he knew the reason.
Dallas had been dead five years. Why hadn’t she remarried, or at least dated someone steadily? She was young—only twenty-five when Dallas died—and pretty. He hadn’t let himself ask, these past five years, hadn’t let himself personally check on her, but this time he had figured enough time had passed and it was safe to ask, to find out she had a hubby and a kid or two, and had gone on with her life.
She hadn’t. She was still alone.
Had she changed? Put on weight, maybe gotten a few strands of gray in her hair? A lot of people began to go gray in their twenties. Did her big dark eyes still look so deep a man could drown in them, and not care?
He could see her. She would never know. He could satisfy his curiosity, smile a little at the physical pleasure seeing her gave him, and walk away. But he knew he wouldn’t see her, some breaks were better made cleanly. He was still who he was and did what he did, so there was no point in daydreams, no matter how pleasurable.
Knowing that was one thing; turning off those desires was another. He would do what he had to do, but what he wanted to do was hold her, just once, and let her know it was him she was kissing, him making love to her. Just once he wanted to strip her naked and have her, and once would have to be enough because he couldn’t dare risk more.
But he had a snowball’s chance in hell of having that “once,” so finally he turned off the daydream, rolled over, and went to sleep.
* * *
John arrived at Frank’s house as he had the night before, in a car with blacked-out windows. He backed into the attached garage, the doors of which slid up as he approached and down as soon as his car was inside. He had spent the day digging out more details about Ronsard, trying to plot a course on getting inside Ronsard’s mansion and getting the information he needed; nothing had immediately presented itself, but eventually it would.
Frank opened the door, an abstract expression on his face that was evidently due to the sheaf of papers he still clutched in one hand. Frank never quit working, it seemed, not even at home; he simply changed locations. While Dodie was alive he had made a real effort to put his job aside and just be with her, but more often than not he had become lost in his thoughts and she would laughingly shoo him into his office. Now, with Dodie gone, Frank often worked sixteen hours a day.
“I was just getting coffee,” he said to John. “Go on into the library and I’ll bring it in there.”
John stopped in his tracks and quizzically regarded his old friend. Frank wasn’t a domestic person; he tried, but he didn’t have a coffee-making gene in his body. John had quickly learned, after Dodie’s death, that if he wanted coffee in Frank’s house he’d better make it himself if he wanted it to be drinkable.
Seeing the look, Frank said irritably, “I didn’t make it, Bridget did.” Bridget was his housekeeper, an Agency employee who had looked after Frank and Dodie since Frank became DDO. She went home after serving Frank his supper and cleaning up the kitchen, assuming he was eating at home that night; she must have made the coffee and put it in a thermos to keep it hot.
“In that case, yes, I’d like a cup.” Grinning, John strolled out of the kitchen, with Frank’s muttered “Smart ass,” following him.
The door to the library was open. John walked in and stopped just past the threshold, his mind blank for a moment except for a silent, savage curse. Damn Frank and his meddling!
Niema Burdock rose slowly out of the chair where she had been sitting, her face pale in the mellow lamplight. Her eyes were as big and dark as he remembered; darker, narrowing as she stared at him and said one word, tight with disbelief: “Tucker.”
John forced himself to move, to step ins
He was never at a loss; he had been trained not to panic, not to lose focus. But this was a shock, the impact of her sudden presence as powerful as if he had been punched in the gut. He hadn’t realized, he thought, how hungry he had been for the sight of her, otherwise why blurt out something he had kept from her five years ago?
Almost no one who met him knew his real name. It was safer that way, for both parties. So why had he told her, this woman who had every reason, if not to actually hate him, to at least avoid him? She had heard him tell her husband to, in effect, kill himself. She had been standing there staring at him with her eyes black as night, her face paper white with shock, when he told Dallas to press the button that would end his life as well as complete the mission. That wasn’t something a woman forgot, or forgave.
She was almost as pale now. For a moment he hoped she hadn’t heard of him before. It was possible; he was in black ops, his name whispered among people in operations, but she worked on the technical side and would seldom, if ever, come into contact with field operatives.
Her throat worked. “John Medina is . . . just a legend,” she said, her voice strained, and he knew she had indeed heard of him.
“Thank you,” he replied casually, “though I don’t know if I like the word ’just.’ I’m real enough. Want to bite me to prove it?” He sat down on the edge of Frank’s desk, one foot swinging, his posture totally relaxed despite the tension screaming through him.
by Linda Howard / Romance / Mystery & Thrillers have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes